Month: December 2021

What I’ve been reading

1. Jenny Erpenbeck, Aller Tage Abend [The End of Days].  The first quarter of this book I thought it was amazing, a candidate for one of the better novels of the last thirty years.  But as the pages passed, it slipped ever more into various sentimental cliches about the tragedies of German 20th century history.  Frustrating, and I fear the author’s success will make it harder to get back on the right track?

2. T.R. Fehrenbach, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans.  Almost certainly the very best book on the history of Texas, and also one of the very best books on the USA and the history of the southwest, especially pre-1870.  The writing is dramatic, many segments are vivid, and the book (1980) precedes the cult of political correctness.  If you wish to read a semi-libertarian defense of how the United States obtained Texas (or do I have that backwards?), this is the place to go.  725 pp.  In 1880, Galveston was the largest settlement in Texas.  And here is a good sentence: “Because poor people settled the West, the frontier was always in debt.”

3. Peter Doggett, Growing Up: Sex in the Sixties.  A book more of substance than sensationalism, that said the substance is one of sensation.  An excellent cultural history, and it also drives home the point that things back then really were not so great, matters sexual included.  The focus is on Britain, but the coverage is global.

4. Joe Posnanski, The Baseball 100.  A very long (827 pp.) and thorough look at who might be the best baseball players of all time.  Entertaining, and I have relatively few gripes.  Given that Babe Ruth was a first-rate pitcher, should he really be #2 to Willie Mays at #1?  Oscar Charleston is at #5, but I might have put Satchel Paige there.  I can’t bring myself to put Tris Speaker ahead of Mike Schmidt, and Cy Young doesn’t do as well as you might think.  Pete Rose and Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are not canceled, but are allowed to take their rightful places in the rankings.  Recommended, for those who care.

I won’t have time to do more than browse Naomi Oreskes’s Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don’t Know About the Ocean.  But it appears to be an entirely serious book about the government funding of science, a drmatically understudied topic area.

Do AI-powered mutual funds outperform the market?

We evaluate the performance of artificial intelligence (AI)-powered mutual funds. We find that these funds do not outperform the market per se. However, a comparison shows that AI-powered funds significantly outperform their human-managed peer funds. We further show that the outperformance of AI funds is attributable to their lower transaction cost, superior stock-picking capability, and reduced behavioral biases.

I am not sure “AI-powered” is entirely well-defined here, but the result is of interest nonetheless.  Here is the paper by Rui Chen and Jinjuan Ren, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Sunday assorted links

1. “A man in northern Italy brought a silicone arm to his COVID-19 vaccination in an attempt to obtain a green pass without actually getting the vaccine.

2. The Rubell DC museum is taking shape.

3. Amazon wage hikes spill over to other firms.

4. Good interview with Ariel Pakes.

5. Poll data on which countries get drunk the most.

6. Glen Weyl thread.

7. Paul McCartney as founder (my Bloomberg column).

Headlines that made no sense until recently

Singapore suspends crypto exchange over spat with K-pop group BTS

Bitget was threatened with legal action by Korean boy band’s agency for promoting digital currency Army Coin

Here is the FT story.  On the same front page is “US defence chief warns of China ‘rehearsals’ for attack on Taiwan” and “US says Russia could invade Ukraine in early 2022.”  Those have made sense for some while now.

Context is that which is scarce

Sebastian Garren emails me the following:

“I have been meditating a lot recently on “Context is what is scarce.” The amazing and ironic thing about this statement is that it is extremely low context and yet offers a gateway into a whole view of reality. Consider this passage from Bernard Lonergan’s Insight:

A single book may be written from a moving viewpoint, and then it will contain, not a single set of coherent statements, but a sequence of related sets of coherent statements. Moreover, as is clear, a book designed to aid a development must be written from a moving viewpoint. It cannot begin by presupposing that a reader can assimilate at a stroke what can be attained only at the term of a prolonged and arduous effort. On the contrary, it must begin from a minimal viewpoint and a minimal context; it will exploit that minimum to raise a further question that enlarges the viewpoint and the context; it will proceed with the enlarged viewpoint and context only as long as is necessary to raise still deeper issues that again transform the basis and the terms of reference of the inquiry; and clearly, this device can be repeated not merely once or twice but as often as may be required to reach the universal viewpoint and the completely concrete context that embraces every aspect of reality.

He gets the context issue. Of course, this doesn’t only apply to books, but to networks of people. Networks create context. Movement along the network to subcategories or adjacent networks creates new insights out of new context, and importantly the person retains an ability to engage with the old context, while inculturating himself to a broader view.

Build the context adjacent to many other high energy networks and they will come.”

TC again: “Context is that which is scarce” is one of my recent favorite sayings.

Demographic Transitions Across Time and Space

The demographic transition –the move from a high fertility/high mortality regime into a low fertility/low mortality regime– is one of the most fundamental transformations that countries undertake. To study demographic transitions across time and space, we compile a data set of birth and death rates for 186 countries spanning more than 250 years. We document that (i) a demographic transition has been completed or is ongoing in nearly every country; (ii) the speed of transition has increased over time; and (iii) having more neighbors that have started the transition is associated with a higher probability of a country beginning its own transition. To account for these observations, we build a quantitative model in which parents choose child quantity and educational quality. Countries differ in geographic location, and improved production and medical technologies diffuse outward from Great Britain. Our framework replicates well the timing and increasing speed of transitions. It also produces a correlation between the speeds of fertility transition and increases in schooling similar to the one in the data.

That is from Matthew J. Delventhal, Jes´us Fernandez-Villaverde, and Nezih Guner.

Claims I can’t quite bring myself to believe

It doesn’t seem this is a partisan issue, but could this possibly be fake news?  It does not fit with my underlying model of the world, not even for British people:

A leading music teacher has said the popularity of the ukulele is threatening classical guitar playing.

More than one in ten musical schoolchildren now play the ukulele, the largest proportion ever, a study by the music exam board ABRSM found. It said the instrument’s popularity grew from 1 per cent of school music students in 1997 to 15 per cent last year.

The ukulele was cited as a cause of the decline of the recorder in schools but in a letter to The Times, Graham Wade, former head of guitar teaching at Leeds College of Music, said the popularity of the four-stringed ukulele was threatening its six-stringed uncle.

“The ukulele is more likely to oust the guitar (whether classical or otherwise) from early instrumental tuition than the recorder,” he said. “I have been a classical guitar teacher in schools and colleges for 50 years, and the subtext of your headline is the demise of a worthy musical tradition.”

There is perhaps more sanity on this side of the ocean:

The latest data from America suggests that demand has fallen, with sales of ukuleles declining 15 per cent between 2018 and 2020 — although the lockdown provided a boost to sales.

Here is more from the Times of London.

Friday assorted links

1.The world of “shadow foster care.” (NYT)

2. The dollar is rising.

3. Why movie dialogue has become more difficult to understand.

4. And how the Beatles used Indian music theory (video).

5. “A soft-spoken, self-effacing young man from Seoul may be the most listened-to living composer on the planet right now…”  A good piece.  And Korea seems to account for 20% of the world’s classical music sales.  Reason to be bullish on the country.

6. “Model this.”

7. “I had to wrap my head around the fact that close to nothing of what makes science actually work is published as text on the web.”  Excellent essay by Markus Strasser.

8. Further Omicron calculations.

52 things Tom Whitwell learned in 2021

Always a good list, here is this year’s edition, and an excerpt:

  1. Beauty livestreamer Li Jiaqi sold $1.9 billion worth of products in one twelve hour show on Taobao. That’s slightly less than the total sales from all four Selfridges stores during 2019. [Jinshan Hong]
  2. 10% of US electricity is generated from old Russian nuclear warheads. [Geoff Brumfiel]
  3. Some South African students sell school Wi-Fi passwords for lunch money. Residents walk up to 6km to connect to schools because 4G data is so expensive. [Kimberly Mutandiro]
  4. Productivity dysmorphia is the inability to see one’s own success, to acknowledge the volume of your own output. [Anna Codrea-Rado]

For the pointer I thank Nabeel.  And here is Whitwell on Get Back and the principles of creativity.

Claims about placebos

…the placebo effect in the United States has actually become quite a lot stronger over time, meaning that drugs that once would have been approved may not be now – because their performance relative to that of placebo is less convincing. This study makes the point clearly – by 2013, drugs produced 8.9% more pain relief than placebos, compared to 27.3% in 1996. In the charts above, it can be seen that the effect of placebo drugs has increased a lot, whereas the effectiveness of pain relief drugs has barely changed, meaning that the treatment advantage (the effectiveness of active drugs as opposed to placebos) has fallen dramatically. Weirdly, it seems like this is only happening in the United States, whereas other countries haven’t seen particularly large increases in the effect size of placebos.

That is from the Substack of Sam.  Hail Bruno M.!